16 attorneys practicing in San Joaquin County submitted a signed letter today to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and County Administrator’s Office today calling for the separation of the county’s sheriff’s and coroner’s office.
The call to action comes two weeks after Dr. Susan Parson submitted her resignation as one of the county’s two forensic pathologists. Her colleague, Dr. Bennet Omalu, submitted his resignation last week. Omalu is well-known as the doctor credited with discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE); his work inspired the Will Smith movie “Concussion.”
The attorneys wrote that Parson and Omalu’s statements and memos “have created serious questions as to the continued placement of the Medical Examiners functions under the control of the sheriff.” The letter was signed by attorneys Armando Villapudua, Melissa Dogherty, Gene Eacret, Leah Gillis, Russell Humphrey, Jeffrey Silvia, Gil Somera, Clarence Chan, Robert Waters, Michael Moore, Timothy Quinn, Emily Chrim, Michael Platt, Vittoria Bossi, Douglas Goss, and Gurjit Srai.
In Parson’s resignation letter, she described Sheriff Steve Moore’s retaliatory behavior and “attempts to control and influence [the pathologists’] professional judgment and conclusions.”
“He dismissed me and stated that Dr. Parson and I work for him, and as long as we were his workers, that we must do anything and everything he asks us to do, even when we considered his actions acting against our standards of practice and the generally accepted principles of medicine,” Omalu wrote.
The attorneys wrote that they are all practicing criminal and civil attorneys, and that medical examiners’ decisions are critical to the work.
“Our residents deserve a legal and administrative system that we can trust and believe in,” they wrote.
They added that there is “no logical reason” for the coroner’s office to be overseen by a non-medical law-enforcement official. “Losing Dr. Omalu because of an archaic system would be very unfortunate and a huge loss for san Joaquin County,” they wrote.
Many California counties have a combined sheriff-coroner office. While combining the two offices may help counties from a financial perspective, Suzanne Bell, Ph.D., Chair of West Virginia University's Department of Forensic and Investigative Science (FIS), says the system is relatively rare nationwide. Bell served as a member of the former National Commission on Forensic Science.
"When you put science within a law enforcement agency, you create an inherent conflict of interest, regardless of the best of intentions, which everyone has," Bell said.
In a statement posted to the sheriff’s office Facebook page, Moore denied interference in forensic investigations, but stressed that the responsibility of making final determinations in investigations was his.